Saturday, January 5, 2008

Review: The Collected Stories by Paul Theroux

The Collected Stories by Paul Theroux. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1998. 660 pages. ISBN 0-14-027494-4. Recommended.

From troubled marriages ("World's End," "You Make Me Mad") and families ("After the War"), from Africa to Malaysia to London, The Collected Stories by Paul Theroux covers a lot of physical, political, social, and emotional territory. Whether he is writing about the past, present, or future ("Warm Dogs") or as the first-person or omniscient narrator, Theroux describes places, people, and events colorfully yet coolly, as though as a writer he is not part of the world or life portrayed.

Parts I, II, and III are mostly discrete, unrelated stories covering a wide range of places, people, and themes. Unhappy marriages and relationships, also found in Parts IV and V, are the topic of many Theroux stories. "World's End" begins with, "Robarge was a happy man . . ." and ends with, ". . . he knew now they were all lost," with a subtle revelation of disloyalty and the realization of distrust in between. In "A Political Romance," love and life come full circle; bloom, discontent and stagnation (". . . in thirty years he would be—this hurt him—the same man, if not a paler version"), and renewal ("Lepska, I love you"). "What Have You Done to Our Leo?" uncovers a woman's perfidy and a man's naivete, assumptions, and developing understanding ("Her laughter was coarse, that stranger's laugh that fitted the new image that Leo had of her."). A rarity in fiction, the older couple of "You Make Me Mad" knows each other too well, yet clearly not well enough. "Sinning with Annie" takes a quirky look at an arranged marriage between two children from the perspective of the adult, prudishly westernized husband. "Words Are Deeds" starts with what appears to be a potentially exciting and risky erotic adventure that resolves quickly into bitter reality ("I hate that tie").

Set in the recent past, "The Imperial Icehouse" is an agonizing story about time that evokes its slow movement along with its decisive moments. "The sounds of the horses chewing, the dripping of the wagon in the heat; it was regular, like time leaking away" ties the preceding procession of the melting ice to the denouement, when "Mr. Hand raised his whip and rushed at John Paul . . . The ice was not larger than a man, and bleeding in the same way." In "After the War," the teenaged stranger masters the master of the house, opening the door for the man's unhappy family; " . . . the child . . . without warning arched his back in instinctive struggle and tried to get free of the hard arms which held him"—perhaps an allegory for what happened to colonial nations after the war. In the future of "Warm Dogs," a couple finds that is the children who possess them.

The stories in Parts IV and V are narrated by a fictional career Foreign Service officer who serves in Ayer Hitam, a backwater Malaysian village, and then London. A memorable exception is "Fury," the story of an expatriate American woman in which the narrator does not appear until after the shocking if not surprising climax.

These stories reveal Theroux's skill as a storyteller. They are recounted so vividly and objectively that they seem to be memoir, not fiction. The reader feels both the narrator's fascination and boredom with his surroundings and acquaintances and senses his emotional detachment and occasional rebelliousness. In particular, small and remote as it is, Ayer Hitam becomes a bottomless well of characters and stories, from the somewhat senile Sultan, the proud Japanese businessman who turns hatred to his advantage, the shaman who commands the tiger, and the anthropologist who gets too close to her subject to the feverish American who sees the ghosts of a local man's relatives. The narrator indulges in a few stories about his own lovers, but these are among the weakest tales. In these stories, Theroux is at his best when the voice he uses is most detached from the characters and their stories and at his weakest when his narrator loses his detachment by associating himself too closely with the group. For example, when he writes, "We rather disliked children; we had none of our own," his narrator loses the outsider status that gives these stories their believability, interest, and even poignancy. At times, however, this objective perspective is too observational and cold, for example, "She saw me and sat forward to let me kiss her, and she lingered a fraction as if posing a question with that pressure." The narrator's point of view is that of a raconteur rather than that of the person experiencing people and events; he writes about what he observed, not about what he felt or feels. Even during his erotic encounters, the narrator is ever the Foreign Service official, ready to observe and report.

As with any short story anthology, some of The Collected Stories are haunting and memorable, while others are almost instantly forgettable. Generally, I prefer the earlier stories to Diplomatic Relations (i): The Consul's File and Diplomatic Relations (ii): The London Embassy because they are less constrained, more inventive, and yet more real. While not a great short story writer like John Cheever, Paul Theroux is certainly a master storyteller who conceives stories worth telling.

Saturday, 5 January 2008.
© 2008 by Diane L. Schirf.

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